The Pidan silk exhibition held this weekend at the National Cultural Center is a story of friendship and hard work borne out of a desire to awaken Cambodian pride in an ancient art form threatened with extinction.
What four Japanese women call their “weekend project” started last April when Yonekura Yukiko, director of the Japan International Volunteer Center, saw at Phsar Tuol Tumpong the most beautiful piece of silk weaving she had ever seen in Cambodia.
It depicted a nature scene with birds and animals, done in the traditional way with natural dye. The market vendor did not know who had made it, but he knew it had come from a weaver in the Prey Kabbas district of Takeo province.
Yonekura showed the piece to Harumi Sekiguchi, director of Caring for Young Khmer’s Handicraft. “She said she had never seen such detailed work in Cambodia,” Yonekura said.
Since this NGO’s activities help Cambodians earn a living, including through a silk-weaving program in Takeo, Sekiguchi knows weavers, Yonekura said. So, after asking the assistance of Kazuko Miyamoto, a health worker in Takeo, they put the word out to find the creator of the silk artwork.
She turned out to be Mrs Tanpo, a 60-year-old woman who wove the scene from a photograph given to her by a foreign visitor four years earlier, Yonekura said.
By then, the women knew what type of weaving it was. Yonekura had sent Morimoto Kikuo, acting director of the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles in Siem Reap, a photo of Tanpo’s piece. This is a Pidan, he told her.
Pidan pagoda hangings are in fact woven paintings. In her book, “Traditional Textiles of Cambodia,” released this month, Gillian Green mentions that there are two major categories of Pidan. The first consists of Pidans intended to be hung above the statue of Buddha to protect it from falling objects; they may feature a sun and moon, or parasols that are emblems of power in Cambodia, she writes.
Pidans in the second category illustrate Buddhist themes such as the lives of Buddha before enlightenment and scenes from the Three Worlds of the Buddhist cosmology, Green writes. “These spectacular depictions of extremely complex formal compositions are achieved with the most intricate of patterning techniques.”
They used to be commissioned by donors—probably wealthy ones considering the quality and production cost of a piece—and donated to pagodas to gain merit, she writes.
In the 1960s and 1970s, weavers started making Pidans for non-religious purposes and selling them to tourists, as some do today, Green notes.
Armed with this knowledge and having gained one more member—Sachiko Tanaka of 24 Hour Television Charity Committee, a health and medical NGO in Kandal province—the weekend-project group continued its research.
The four women soon realized that the art and techniques for the finest Pidans belonged to a few elderly women. “They would tell us that they had a lot of [Pidan] motifs in their heads,” said Yonekura. “When we asked them to draw them for us, they would say that they could not show but that they could make them.”
In addition, the weavers had no example of their work in stock, said Yonekura. Since they weave for a living, they sell them as soon as they are made, she said.
The group learned from master weaver Liu Saem that most Pidans are overseas, often in private collections, Yonekura said. It also discovered that young Cambodians don’t know about Pidan.
Their preliminary research indicates that this type of complex silk weaving may be unique to the country, Yonekura said. Areas in which this art form can be found—in Thailand, Laos and Kampuchea Krom in Vietnam—were part of Cambodian territory at some time in history, she said.
“We decided that we wanted Pidan to be known again by Cambodian people as an art form and a part of their cultural heritage,” Yonekura said.
“Above all, we wanted Cambodians to have pride in this artistic and very sophisticated work,” Miyamoto said.
The group named itself the Pidan Project Team and prepared an exhibition to trigger interest in Pidan. They obtained the support of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. The group members rented a hall at the National Cultural Center and bought 10 Pidans for the exhibition. Liu Saem and the Flo-Khmer Silk Processing Association, which recently won an Unesco award of excellence, made original Pidans for the event.
The team plans to continue promoting this dying art form.
The exhibition is open Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. The center is located on Sisowath Quay, south of the Hotel Cambodiana and across the street from the Buddhist Institute.